Terrorism – A Very Short Introduction by Charles Townshend
I guess that I can date my interest in terrorism back to the early 1970’s during the last big upsurge of activity. With the IRA bombing cities across the
various Red Brigades operating in Italy,
Germany and Japan, Action Direct in France, The Weathermen in the US and our very own home grown Angry Brigade in England hardly
a day went by without some mention in the press or on the TV. Then, of course,
those of us who are old enough will remember the birth of Palestinian
terrorism, hijackings and various other attacks designed to bring attention to
All of this, and more, was covered in this excellent little volume by the author of ‘Easter 1916 – The Irish Rebellion’ which I reviewed here back in September 2010. Odd as it initially seem the author began by struggling to define terrorism (in distinction to acts of terrorism) and found it – just like many before him, to be a difficult process indeed. Most definitions used to date, he suggests, are either too inclusive or too exclusive to be of much use. Moving on the author went on to discuss the different types of terrorism drawing on the rich historical record for examples – The Terror of the French and Russian revolutions, the 19th Century revolutionary terrorists in Europe and the USA, their more contemporary followers in Latin America in the 20th century and the nationalistic terror of Ireland and the Basque region of Spain, ending with a brief overview of religious terror which has been around a lot longer than we generally think.
Finally the author recounts some of the ideas and some of the ways nations have attempted to combat terrorism and a very interesting analysis of how most terrorist campaigns end – between 1968 and 2006 only 10% could reasonably claim victory whilst a similar percentage had been successfully crushed by direct military force. Contrast this with around 40% being terminated by police investigation and a slightly larger percentage (43%) ending in political settlement. These figures certainly make a mockery of the present ‘war on terror’ which should have been focused on police action leading towards some kind of political understanding. After all, when all is said and done, terrorism is a crime – normally encompassing murder and property damage. Existing laws may need periodic ‘tweaking’ to keep pace with developments but, I contend, most terrorist activity can be controlled (but never wholly eliminated) by the police, the courts and, in exceptional circumstances, military special forces under the direction of civilian authorities.
As weapons technology progresses (if you can use such a word) more and more deadly devices will fall into the hands of people who are willing to use them for their own political objectives which they think will be advanced by killing civilians and making the world take them seriously. This I think is inevitable. What we must not do in response to this threat is either abandon our liberal democratic way nor fall for the apparently seductive charm of perpetual war. What we can do is to treat terrorism as crime and respond accordingly. Bombs will always go off from time to time and innocents will die but by controlling our response to what is reasonable and proportionate we can prevent or at lest reduce a great deal of future damage and even more casualties: the opposite, in fact, to what we are doing right now. A highly recommended book that puts the ‘war on terror’ into perspective.